I WENT TO BOWDON TO VISIT MY SISTER who had an attic flat in a house on Stamford Road. The flat was full of early sixties chic, with straw-covered wine bottles for lamp stands, knick knacks from foreign trips, sombreros, and most interesting of all, a record player.
I loved to open the lid, releasing a dusty metallic smell from inside, and carefully lift one of the LP records onto the turntable, placing the needle carefully on the vinyl. To this day, the scratchy staccato of the strings and the lyrical swoon of the opening clarinet transports me as in a time machine into that flat in Bowdon. 'Ravel's Bolero' was probably the first piece of Classical music I recognised - the discordant, iridescent, Hispanic-Arabic refrains gave off an atmosphere of exotica fully in keeping with the Victorian-Edwardian setting, though the piece was actually written in 1928. Compared with the slums, the terraced streets, even the respectable semis of my home area, Bowdon was a place of wonder.
Theme tunes have a magical power, none more so than the 'Avengers' theme, composed by Laurie Johnson. The opening four note fanfare leading into the playful opening harpsichord, followed by the lush and lurid main theme played on the strings was enough to open up a door into the imagination, where I was Steed and Mrs Peel was my friend. The place I knew which captured the spirit of the Avengers, with its special quality of Englishness, a never-never land of Victorian eccentricity, with a streak of dashing sixties chic, was Bowdon, just a bus ride from my home. Lying awake in the middle of the night, I would hear the Avengers theme, and in my imagination it was daytime, driving down tree lined avenues in a vintage car, chasing crazy eccentric criminals, and visiting mad-cap scientists in rambling Victorian mansions.
My local area - the Manchester area - provided a wealth of different environments, different worlds, more than any small town could offer. Looking out of the train or from the top deck of the bus, I saw an endless landscape of towns, villages, parks, rivers, woods, houses, factories, railway stations, viaducts, sidings, goods yards, playgrounds, schools, playing fields, tree-lined suburbs, terraced streets, trunk roads, dual carriageways, and here and there a stretch of pristine motorway. Glimpses of railway landscapes, of rooftop views over housing estates, of coal tips and slag heaps, became etched in my mind - To this day I'm sure there are thousands of latent images captured in my mental camera waiting to be unlocked.
The drawings of local artist Trevor Grimshaw who tragically died in 2002 in a house fire, are the closest approximation to what I saw. If anyone has any information about Trevor Grimshaw and his amazing drawings, please e-mail me.
At Our Lady's primary school in 1967, I completed my first project about the Manchester area, with descriptions of buildings, photographs and postcards. I took a keen interest in my local district, and in my essay about the Merseyway shopping centre, I described the road built over the river in the 1930's as a 'splendid thoroughfare' and the new centre as 'very modern'. I got top marks from my teacher Sister Esther (previously known as Sister Gabriel). Occasionally I would see old postcards of the local area - The outmoded cars and shabby buildings seemed dreadfully passé.
At the time I was very keen on the exciting new skyscrapers in Manchester like the CIS building (1962), the Scottish Widows Fund Building, now Portland Tower (1962), Piccadilly's Sunley Tower (1965) and Rodwell Tower, now 111 Piccadilly (1962). I regarded the Midland Hotel as an ugly monstrosity and paid very little attention to the facades of the Victorian buildings, mainly because they were mostly covered in a layer of black.
In 1971, as a pupil at Xaverian College, I did a project called 'Manchester's Buildings', which I still have today - It has some photographs - a picture of Manchester Airport taken from the end of the International Pier, a photo taken in Blackpool and some views of Jodrell Bank radio telescope. There are also postcards, hand drawn plans, a map of Manchester, a map of the north west. Though the project was entitled 'Manchester's Buildings' I included a picture of a bus, justifying it with the thoughtful remark 'buses are like buildings on wheels'. The handwriting and presentation weren't particularly good, but it was a foretaste of what I would be doing for a living 26 years later.
At primary school I entered a poster competition - a painted design featuring Tom Thumb - and received first prize. I was presented with a Kodak Instamatic camera, replacing our ancient Brownie (a replica of which is on show at the Urbis Centre next to my photos in the 'City Voices' display), and was pictured in the Stockport Express showing my poster to the Lord Mayor of Stockport. The following year I won another competition, this one organised by the police and received a more modern Instamatic camera. The experience of using cameras would be a formative influence, though I didn't take photos to document the world around me, as I hadn't been introduced to the concept. Cameras were for taking pictures of relatives and friends.
During the mid-60's, the wave of modernity was counterbalanced by a tangible and melancholy mood of nostalgia, nowhere better reflected than in some of the songs of The Beatles. The plaintive 'Michelle' (1966) reminds me of the arrival of a girl of the same name in my class at primary school.
'Penny Lane' (1966) is a classic of nostalgia, of special memories of a magical place in England, remembered from childhood. It conjures up vivid pictures of a real place, seen through the misty veil of time. It's intensely real, but dream-like at the same time - the lilting high-pitched trumpet gives the song an ethereal other-worldly quality. 'Penny Lane' and the song on the flip-side 'Strawberry Fields' are of course about places in Liverpool, but the special mood and visual quality of the music are an exact parallel to my childhood experience of Manchester. 'There beneath the blue suburban sky' - Lennon and McCartney inspired me to capture similar blue suburban skies in my photographs of Manchester in later years. This was not just a catchy pop song, it was a mood-enhancing, life-transforming experience, conjuring up mental images as vivid as an 8mm film show. There were of course no videos in those days, you had to use your imagination.
Another song written by Lennon and McCartney which has a powerful quality of nostalgia and melancholy is 'Those Were The Days' (1968) by Mary Hopkin, who found fame on the talent show 'Opportunity Knocks' presented by Hughie Green. The programme was broadcast from the ABC studios (Capitol Theatre), on Parrs Wood Road Didsbury. We bought the record, which reminded my father of his younger days, and I can still see the apple logo on the label spinning on the turntable. The ballad, based on a Ukrainian folk song, is intimately associated in my mind with Didsbury, specifically Wilmslow Road, near the Old Cock Inn, close to where my mother lives now. What formed the association I have long forgotten, but when I hear that song, I think of that place, which I drive past several times a week.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a habit of visualising places in my mind, which remind me of certain events or are associated with music. Certain subjects, certain pieces of music make me think of certain places - street corners, road junctions, views, which I can picture very clearly in my mind's eye.
There was a sense of expectation of times to come, or using words written some 10 years later by Manchester songwriter Pete Shelley, a 'nostalgia for an age yet to come'. I imagined my future living in a big house in Cheshire - or maybe California, thanks to the airport the two were pretty close anyway. I would have two cars one designed by myself. The house would be big, warm and modern, like George Best's, full of dayglo orange psychedelic colours similar the ones I saw in the trendy boutique '7 Miles Out' on Wellington Rd, Stockport. Growing up in the midst of a cold grey northern landscape, this glowing vision of the future sustained me.
Shude Hill before the Arndale Centre was another sad and run-down corner, with its ramshackle stalls selling musty second hand books and old 78-rpm records.
The Tesco supermarket on Hillgate Stockport sold ex-juke box records from a rack near the checkout. They cost two shillings and sixpence. That's where we bought 'Those Were The Days' - another record was '123' by Len Barry. I played them on a Dansette record player bought second hand from a lady who lived on the other side of the reservoirs.
It was around 1968 or 69 that a genre of urban popular music, imported from the States, began to take on a special significance for me and my experience of Manchester. This genre was Soul, and more specifically Northern Soul, a continuation of the rougher, gutsier form of Soul which the Motown record label had left behind. Imported from across the Atlantic, this raw, urban American music, produced by mostly obscure and unknown black artists, was to be adopted by a new generation of English kids.
The term 'Northern' was coined by journalist Dave Godin in an article written September 1971 and referred to northern England, where it was especially popular. There was something about the rough hewn vocals, the pacy impatient rhythms which had an affinity with the north. The most famous Northern Soul venue was the now demolished Wigan Casino, 18 miles north west of Manchester. The music was also heard at the Torch Club in Stoke-On-Trent, at the Twisted Wheel club in Manchester city centre, and at innumerable discos large and small all over northern England.
Northern Soul, whenever I hear it, conjures up a feeling of Manchester and the north in the late sixties and early seventies. The rough-edged vocals, the spiky staccato brass chords, the snare, tom tom, and tambourine, the rubbery bass lines, the warm and tingly xylophone, conjures up vivid and mostly night-time pictures of good times spent at discos and 'All Nighters', which unlike most dances went on till dawn.
I was too young to go to grown-up discos, so my main experience of Northern Soul was at local discos for under-16's held at the Scouts hall and later on, at school discos. I could only aspire to the coolness of the Northern Soul lads who danced in their platform soles, flared trousers, shirts with large round collars and tank tops, bouncing from side to side and up and down the dance floor with scissor-like leg movements, much to the admiration of the girls.
Standing by the speakers I listened in to the instruments, the rhythm, and the voices, which had a quality of treacle and sandpaper, each song, a perfectly crafted three minute pop anthem. 'There's A Ghost In My House' recorded in 1965 by R Dean Taylor on Motown Records, is the song which stands out more than any other. Others I remember are 'Girls Are Out To Get You' by The Fascinations, 'This Aint Nuthin' But A House Party' by The Showstoppers, and many more I can't remember. There are thousands of Northern Soul records, many produced by little known artists in the States with pressings of only a few thousand.
This is the music that rang in my ears as I walked or rode the all night bus home. Looking out at the dark, dimly lit side streets and the nighttime urban landscape, this music fused with the time and the place. In fact, through the power of my imagination and the degree to which I identified with the obscure black American singers, Manchester became America.
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